When donor centrism is at odds with your donors

Donor centrism means putting the donor at the center of the organization’s fundraising and, in fact, everything the organization does. It means, as fundraising expert Simone Joyaux says, building trust — trust that donors play a critical role in the charity’s success, trust that the charity does worthwhile things with donations, and trust that the charity operates efficiently.

It’s the ideal that charities aspire to, or should.

But what happens when the work your organization is committed to doing is suddenly at odds with what your donors want? This is what that the ACLU has grappled with after the events in Charlottesville, Va., in August.

You’ll recall that white supremacist groups marched in Charlottesville and were countered by anti-fascist protestors.

What’s less widely known is that city officials tried to revoke the permit to protest removal of the Gen. Robert E. Lee statue. The city wanted to move the protest out of the downtown location to an open area about a mile away for easier crowd control. The city was sued by the ACLU, and the judge ruled against the city. The protest took place in downtown Charlottesville as originally planned.

The ACLU was of course acting in accordance with its mission to defend the rights and liberties enshrined in the Constitution. But donors were outraged. A board member even resigned over it.

Further complicating the problem, the ACLU is one of the many charities that benefitted from the so-called Trump bump – a big increase in donations after the election of Donald Trump. The donors who gave probably did so as a form of protest against the kind of nationalism that the ACLU appeared to defend.

So where does that leave the ACLU? Have they broken trust with their donors? And does that mean they’re not donor centric?

For that matter, should any charity ever act in ways that differ from its donors’ wishes? Or does a charity have the obligation to pursue its mission and act on its ideals regardless of the consequences? And if so, should the charity expect its donors to come along with them and continue to give, or should the charity assume that some donors will fall away in cases like this, and just chalk it up to attrition?

These questions go to the core of what it means to be donor centric. Usually, when we talk about donor centrism, it centers around using “you” in fundraising copy, thanking donors properly, getting donor data right to avoid embarrassing mistakes, reporting back to donors about outcomes, and so on.

These are critical, no doubt about it. But as the episode with the ACLU shows, donor centrism goes straight to the charity’s core and its mission.

In situations like this, the charity has to determine its next steps wisely.

One thing’s for certain, though. An issue like the ACLU faces is not one to address in your fundraising, because that puts you in the position of explaining and educating.

That’s not a good position to be in because, first, it pulls you away from your main goal of generating funds. Second, it’s a low-involvement strategy, because donors don’t want to be educated by the charities they support. The response to this kind of approach will likely be dismal. And third, it gets donors to think, and fundraising works best when we can get donors to feel something about the cause or the need.

Some ways to counter bad press could include blog posts, Facebook posts, videos on YouTube, talking with reporters, and other PR strategies. Some of which the ACLU has done.

But more to the point, in an act of donor centrism, the ACLU has recently changed its policy. According to PBS, the ACLU will no longer represent supremacist groups that demonstrate with guns. And that, no doubt, will go a long way toward re-establishing trust with donors.

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